Monday, September 7, 2009

Book 5: The Bhagavad Gita

Dear Yann,

Many thanks for your letter. It has been a real pleasure to join you in your "literary guerilla campaign", as you call it. Up to this point I have enjoyed all the books you have chosen - the project has sparked numerous interesting conversations, and it has also provided me with some sense of purpose when I otherwise was lacking (in the intellectual department, I mean. Clearly, as a parent of young children, one always has a sense of purpose). Since you suggested it, I will send my responses to the PM. (No, I hadn't considered it - I mean, if he can't even respond to a Man Booker prize-winning author who sends him books on a bi-weekly basis then what kind of a hope in hell have I got of him looking at anything I write? My sister suggested he could use my letters as cliff notes, but so far I don't think they'd be very useful.)
It is not the Burgess or the Woolf that I have been dreading - I remain rather sheltered when it comes to Burgess, so I don't know enough to dread him, and while I'm sure that To the Lighthouse will be a challenge (I've tried and given up on it before), I do like Woolf (I have made it through Mrs. Dalloway and The Years, so I know I can do it). I think it was the Rand and the Ignatieff that I was referring to in that first letter. I've read The Fountainhead, and, to put it bluntly, didn't really feel the need to read any more of her in this lifetime, and as for the Ignatieff, it is really only because I know I lack stamina when it comes to political non-fiction. They seem a long way off right now, especially given the pace I'm now keeping.
It seems that I have slowed to one title per month. What happened with the Gita is, quite honestly, that I got stuck. I've carried it around for weeks, pulling it out to read a few passages, and then leaving it. Here's a short list of what I read while I was avoiding it: Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi, Gentleman Jim, by Raymond Briggs (I thought that graphic novels would not distract me for long enough to get off schedule), An Edible Journey, by Elizabeth Levinson, the first two stories in the new Alice Munro book (I have read every new Munro as it has been released ever since I read the Lives of Girls and Women in my late teens, so it is hard for me resist) and the first 150 pages of Dave Eggers' Zeitoun. Finally, tonight, I forced myself to sit down and not move until I had worked my way to the end of the slim volume. I am wondering if it has changed me, as you suggested it would to Harper. I'm trying to figure out why I found it so hard to focus on.

(continued September 13th)

I skipped the introduction, as you recommended to Harper (I usually skip the introductions anyway, and then go back to them after I've finished the book.) And I'm glad you explained that we are to read it as metaphor, because I did find it hard to reconcile the message of peace and non-violence that Krishna conveys, with his justification for going into battle ("Through the fate of their Karma I have doomed them to die: be thou merely the means of my work" (p.55-56) Yikes! That could be misinterpreted!) I suppose that is the crux of so many sacred texts - misinterpretation. If we could collectively place all sacred texts under the great metaphor umbrella, this world could probably avoid much of its conflict. I enjoyed their conversation - so many passages inspire calm and reassurance. I was thinking a lot about work as I was reading the first half, and so I enjoyed the parts that related to that theme ("He who works not for an earthly reward, but does the work to be done, he is a Sanyasi..") It is amazing how many lines ring familiar. I would like to find a cross-reference book that compares sacred texts from different traditions and identifies or discusses the common veins running throughout all of them. There must be some - I just need to spend more time in the theology stacks at the library. I liked the explanation of the three 'gunas' as well, although there was an element of that which was unsettling - why must that final moment of life count for so much? What if your life was spent mainly in Saatva, but had sunk into Tamas at the very end? It seems a shame that all should be lost. (Which guna do you think Ivan Ilych was in when he died?) I think I will have to reread this one. Like poetry, it struck me as the kind of text that you have to read once just to let the words wash over you, and once you've experienced it you can go back and make some sense of it. I thank you for prompting me to read this (though your prompt was not intended for me specifically), because I doubt it is something I would have picked up on my own. Now I am going to go and finish the Dave Eggers before I move on to Bonjour Tristesse (they had a French copy at Munro's so I'm going to tackle it in the original!) I can't say that it is very likely that I will pick up the pace either - I have finally had some luck (maybe luck is the wrong word. I persevered.) and found employment. So while I no longer need the distraction that I mentioned back in June, I still appreciate the diversion.



P.S. I must now add another one to my list of books I am dreading. I just checked the What is Stephen Harper Reading? website, and see that only a few minutes ago you posted your latest offering to Harper. A Harlequin romance. Really? What are you thinking? I'll have to go read the letter to find out.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Book 4: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart

Dear Mr. Martel,

Congratulations! In your last letter to Prime Minister Harper, you told him about the arrival of your new son Theo. When I read the exciting news I thought I would like to send Theo a little present, to welcome him to the world, and what could be more appropriate than a book? So earlier this week I went down to Munro's where I agonized for quite some time. I do find it hard to choose just one book. I even briefly entertained the idea of starting a new project along the lines of "What is Theo Martel reading?", but that seemed a bit ridiculous. I worked in the children's department of the wonderful Westmount Public Library for ten years, and have accumulated a lengthy list of favourite children's books, but I wanted to send something that Theo could enjoy sooner rather than later, and I wanted to send a board book, because they are so sturdy and withstand a fair bit of chewing, which, in my experience, is what babies mostly want books for. I finally settled on Mr. Gumpy's Outing, by John Burningham. Are you familiar with this classic? If not, then you are in for a treat. It is a book that I loved as a child (my mother did funny voices for all the different animals), and one that my children love as well, even when I am too tired to do the funny voices. I've read it at story time, and shown it to numerous classes on an antique film strip, and I don't think I have ever met a child who does not like it. So I hope Theo will enjoy it as well. I love the tea scene at the end of the book, but I especially appreciate (and am inspired by) Mr. Gumpy's patience. I had the great pleasure of seeing John Burningham a few years ago. I took my eldest, Grace, who was 6 at the time, to hear him read at the Blue Metropolis festival. Sadly, the event was botched by the Blue Met - he was paired with someone he never should have been put with (it was painful), and there was only a handful of people in attendance. It was a shame, but it was still lovely to see and hear him. He actually resembles Mr. Gumpy quite a bit now.

I'm afraid that I am already running behind schedule with the book club. I finished By Grand Central Station quite some time ago, and had vaguely thought I would speed through the next book and do a 2 for 1 post, but that didn't work out. I needed time to digest By Grand Central Station, and didn't think it would be fair to the Bhagavad Gita to rush into it. It's quite a tight schedule you've got the PM on, if you don't mind me saying. I'm sure I'm not nearly as busy as the PM, but even so this project does seem to take up all my (limited) free reading time. (I did sneak in another book while I was back east, and that is partly why I'm running late.) I will admit that I am not a very fast reader. But on to the book at hand. What a book. She evokes so perfectly that all-encompassing love, the kind that blocks out everything else in the world - when everything else is just a distant satellite orbiting around you. And then when it crashes - oh, the desolation. Smart certainly illustrates that "what goes up must come down" is not just for gravity's purposes. I enjoyed the book, the poetry of it, the glimpse into that relationship (I had to go to the library and get out her Autobiographiesfor a more complete picture. Quite incredible.)

(continued August 10th)

Now I've let this go too long. I even took the book back to the library, and I'm not sure why, because there were a few passages I thought I'd like to copy out. To remember. I think I stalled because somehow writing about this novel felt too personal. I had some extreme responses to this book, including an incredibly vivid dream which made me cry when I woke up (that was a first). I thought I might abandon the project altogether, and picked up Loving Frank, which my sister gave me, instead of the next book on the list. Have you read it? Similar themes but quite a different outcome. Now I'm feeling a little spent from all the passion and drama, and I think the Bhagavad Gita would be a good place to go. So onwards.

With best wishes to you and your family,

Rebecca Baugniet

P.S. I don't know if Elizabeth Smart ever visited Laurier House, but you have got corresponding with the Prime Minister in common with her. One biography I had out of the library gave an account of her writing to Mackenzie King, requesting he play Bacchus at a party she was holding at his country place. (They were neighbours.) I wonder if he ever read her book.

encl: one copy of Mr. Gumpy's Outing, by John Burningham
inscribed: To Theo, wishing you a happy childhood filled with good books, from an aspiring writer, Rebecca Baugniet

Monday, June 29, 2009

Book 3: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie

Dear Mr. Martel,

This will be a brief dispatch, as it is late, and I am tired, and need my sleep for I am in the throes of travel preparation. My family and I are heading east on Wednesday, and for some reason, traveling with three children requires large reserves of energy and patience. I am gearing up.

I wanted to let you know that I have read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It is the first Agatha Christie that I've read, although I did perform in a theatrical adaptation of And Then There Were None (en fran├žais!) in grade 10, and saw The Mousetrap in Toronto many years ago. My paternal grandmother was a big fan, and I remember the mysteries all lined up on a bookshelf along the stairs. I have never been much of a detective novel reader, but this is the second one I've read recently - the last novel I read before embarking on this project was The Sweetness at The Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. (Another very enjoyable read). My only complaint about this book has nothing to do with Agatha, and everything to do with the publisher at Berkley Books who allowed the following to be printed on the back cover: "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was championed by Dorothy L. Sayers who said, "Christie fooled you [all]... It's the reader's business to suspect everyone." (There - you said no-one refers to her as "Christie", but apparently Dorothy L Sayers did.) Don't you think that rather gives it away? Of course I started suspecting the least obvious character after reading that. It didn't really ruin it for me - I just like to complain. It was still fun to see how all these little details that have been in plain sight all along can be pieced together, all the loose ends tied up. It made me consider how much I skim as a reader, how much I miss because of my skimming. It also made me think about all the little (and not so little) secrets in families, and how they simmer until something causes them to boil over into open secrets (that's the title of one of my all-time favourite collections of Alice Munro's - I'm so happy you've put her on the list). Unless they are lucky enough to simmer until they evaporate, but those are the lucky few I think. More often the "truth will out", right? Oh- that provides a convenient lead up to introduce my photographs - in the letter you sent to accompany this volume you provided four photos from the library at Laurier House, and again, in the interest of symmetry, I thought I would offer up two from my own library. My Shakespeare, to be precise.

Aren't they lovely? My mother gave them to me, and they are one of my most prized possessions. I think in the event of a fire, I would rush to save them, maybe stacking them on top of the family photo albums. It is The New Temple Shakespeare, and my mum collected them. Some of them have inscriptions on the front flyleaf (in Hamlet: Gabriel from Ma. June 17.1958.) and some of them have inscriptions on the back flyleaf, written by my mother (Gabriel) (in Macbeth: 29.vii.55 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford (Olivier), or King Lear: 11.viii.53 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford (Redgrave). I've decided to add to the inscriptions, starting with As You Like It, which I saw at the McPherson Theatre here in Victoria two weeks ago. No big names, but a wonderful performance nevertheless. My mother is following our correspondences with interest, and has her own theories as to why you have not heard from the prime minister directly, but I will not go into them here.

Hmm. I do manage to get off topic. I did look out for the George Eliot reference you mentioned. I have not read The Mill on the Floss myself, but devoured Middlemarch and have been meaning to read more ever since. I see why you like that line. Perhaps you know the answer to a question that came up for me while reading - of course I can't find the exact reference right now, but at some point I think it is Flora who says things are beginning to seem like a scene from a Danish play. I thought of Ibsen, but no - Ibsen is Norweigian. So who is the Danish playwright being referred to? Just wondering.

I will be reading Elizabeth Smart on the plane, if the children let me, and will send you my next response from Montreal. Until then, all the best, and Happy Canada Day!

Rebecca Baugniet

Monday, June 15, 2009

Book 2: Animal Farm, by George Orwell

Dear Mr. Martel,

Well, I'm getting in just under the line, it being 11 pm PST. I just finished rereading Animal Farm, and am very pleased to have done so. The details of the book had been buried deep amongst most other memories from my high school years, and I 'm sure it was easier to reread it than to attempt an excavation of such memories. It is always interesting to read books at different stages in life, and see how it affects you depending on what experiences and education you've had or gained since your last reading. I would like to say that the political satire was more evident to me this time around, but sadly my knowledge of the Russian Revolution has not increased a great deal since grade seven, and without the notes on the text provided by Peter Davison in the recent Penguin edition I had out of the Greater Victoria Public Library (acquired by the GVPL on May 28th of this year - I think I was the first patron to read this copy!) I would not have known that Orwell intended Napoleon to be reminiscent of Stalin. Yes, the notes were helpful (and if you will allow another one of my digressions, on a little amazon hunt earlier this week I happened to notice that there is an edition out with an introduction by Ann Patchett. I would like to read what she has to say about it too. I like her - do you? Especially Bel Canto- I wonder if that would be a good one to send Stephen Harper). But what is wonderful about Animal Farm, I think (and surely why they made us read it in high school), is that you don't need to fully grasp the satire to appreciate its meaning.

The novel made all sorts of diverse thoughts surface in my brain, beginning with the personification of animals in literature (really, I could only come up with Aesop and Art Spiegelman's Maus in adult lit, but I think that is because my brain has become over-saturated with all the talking animals in the children's books I have been reading to my kids over the past nine years - there must be others). For all three (Aesop, Spiegelman and Orwell) the use of talking animals provides some distance from political commentary. Hmm. Maybe not so much with Maus. Speaking of children's books, have you come across Farmer Duck, written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury? A rather peculiar children's story with some faint echoes of Orwell.

Animal Farm reminded me of my trips to Prague in '95, and Cuba in '97, and all the various perspectives on socialism I was exposed to in those places. I thought about bears a lot, although this is because I was reading it on a camping trip, and I have some qualms about camping in bear country. With small children. I also thought about how we treat animals. I was especially moved by the death of Boxer, and wondered why Orwell chose the pigs to be the cunning ones, while the other animals are all dense - did he observe this in a farmyard, I wonder? I have never viewed pigs as being particularly smart animals, however I haven't spent much time with farm animals. And I thought about your book - the one you mentioned to Harper when you sent him this book. I wonder how it is coming along - I am looking forward to reading it. Have I not yet mentioned it? I am a fan of your work. I thoroughly enjoyed The Life of Pi - I read it shortly after my second child was born, and remember becoming completely absorbed in it, but again, the details are foggy - I blame the sleepless nights of that period. (It's on my reread list). It is your Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios that is more fresh in my mind. I read it in 2004 before going to see it put on at the Bain St. Michel, and it blew me away. (Twice. The story and then the play.)

I have not had a reply from you yet, but I expect this is because you haven't really heard from me yet. I only mailed out the last letter earlier today. First I was delayed because my printer was out of ink. Then when I replaced the cartridges and printed it up I was a little paralyzed with self-doubt. Was this all too crazy? Shouldn't I have some better comments to put down before I sent off my responses? Etc. I got over that, but then the envelope got lost in the bottom of my purse, and then we went camping. So finally today, two weeks after writing the letter, I actually plucked up my courage and dropped the letter in a mailbox. Hopefully I will get this one off to you in a more timely fashion.

Wishing you a good two weeks (I see your birthday falls between this letter and my next so please accept my best early birthday wishes - I noticed that you wished the Prime Minister a happy birthday when you sent him Animal Farm, so there seems to be a nice symmetry there),

Rebecca Baugniet

Monday, June 1, 2009

Book 1: The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tostoy

Dear Mr. Martel,

I finished The Death of Ivan Ilych today. You see, I’ve been following your correspondence with Prime Minister Harper (sporadically, I admit) since the beginning and have been growing increasingly disappointed by his lack of response. It was somewhat reassuring, in recent weeks, to see that you have received a couple of replies from his staff, but still, doesn’t it seem a little shabby, after the gift of fifty-five books, to have not yet had so much as a word from the man himself? Perhaps a “Dear Yann, Thanks for the books – I’m keeping them for my retirement. In the meantime I prefer to expand my stillness with Dick Francis. Your P.M…” I know the man is busy, but that only took me a few seconds to type out. Like you, I wonder about our leader and what makes him tick. And I began to wonder about what he was missing out on as well. Does he read your letters but not the books? Does he flip through the copies you send, admiring your dedication and skimming the back cover? Or is this all completely off his radar? Is there absolutely no time in his week for any literary interests, is he completely spent from politics and never gets to read for pleasure? I wonder. Which brings me to the real subject of my letter. I have decided to take on your reading list myself.

Please allow me to introduce myself: I am a 31-year old Canadian woman. I was born in Montreal, where I lived until last August, when my husband and I decided to move to the West Coast. Not for work or school, just for a change, and because we thought it would be nice to live by the sea (it is). I find myself without any employment or academic pursuits at the moment and am in need of something to keep my mind off this situation, in the moments when I am not busy trying to remedy it. Feeling that your project deserves a bit more attention than it has so far received, I am embarking on the literary journey you mapped out for Stephen Harper.

I am looking forward to most of the titles you have chosen - I have previously read twelve on the list, and started but not finished another two, maybe three. I am only dreading a couple. My plan is to read them all, in the order you sent them, and send you a response to each one. You may notice that I am only making a plan, and not a vow as you did. This is because I know myself well, and admit that I am easily distracted, especially from things I’ve assigned myself. I tend to start things out with great enthusiasm, which then fizzles out after a few months. I do hope this won’t happen, as your own persistence inspires me, but I am not prepared to make any promises. Nor do I aspire to write anything illuminating or especially erudite about these books, only a few assorted impressions I had while reading. My primary hope in doing this is to expand my own stillness (I like your phrase), but perhaps I also hope to bolster your mission in my small way – to affirm to our PM that yes, the average Canadian does care about culture. We are mourning the cuts to arts funding and the demise of small circulation arts, literary and cultural magazines. And yes, we read.

So I read The Death of Ivan Ilych over the past few days. I read it as you suggested Prime Minister Harper read it, in just a few minutes a day. I read it as I sat at the Aveda Institute letting the colour seep into my hair (please don’t get the wrong impression, I very rarely get my hair done, and when I do I usually see it as an opportunity to read for the trashy magazines that one finds there), I read it at the edge of the YMCA pool while my children were having their Sunday swimming lessons, letting the pages dampen with little chlorinated water droplets, and I read in other places too. I found it especially compelling to read it in these various spots, with so much life buzzing around, to contrast the death scene being drawn out in the book. At one point Ivan Ilych struck me as a sort of literary precursor to Holden Caulfield, that where Caulfield obsessed over the phoniness apparent to him in adolescence, Ilych was preoccupied by all the falsity surrounding him in his decline.

I’m embarrassed to report that this was my first proper taste of Tolstoy. I did try to read War and Peace the summer I was 19, but it did not grab me the way one wants a summer book to, and as I’ve already confessed, I am easily distracted. But back to Ivan. It wasn’t immediately obvious why you would have chosen it for the first book to send Harper, but looking over your article in the Globe from April 2007 that kicked this all off, I see how it would have seemed appropriate, given what you had just experienced in the House of Commons, to send a man wielding so much power at this stage of his life the chronicle of the final days of another powerful man who is agonising over whether he has lived the right life. It is an enormous question, and impossible to read without pausing and taking stock. Hmm, I wondered last night as I dozed off, am I doing what I want to do with this limited time I have? And if I’m not, how exactly to change course? Important considerations. I also liked the character of Gerasim, and he made me reflect on how some people are naturally so good at being with the infirm, without betraying any sense of pity or grudging or fears of their own, or any of the other emotions that surface in the presence of the terminally ill, while others are not (sadly, I feel that I fall into the latter category – as you said, he is the character in which we recognize ourselves the least). I had some other thoughts as well, but I think I've gone on long enough for today.

I’m off to the post now. I will mail this to you care of your publisher in Scotland, as that was the only contact address I came across online. I will be in touch again in two weeks when I have reread Animal Farm, which I have not looked at since I was in Shirley Pearlman’s grade 7 English class.

Until then, I wish you all the best,

Rebecca Baugniet